Flu-ridden he may be, but Bruce Forsyth still knows how to make an entrance. Down the sweeping stairs of his Surrey mansion he strides, his straight-as-an-arrow moustache registering jauntiness, his laugh lines reaching almost to the tip of his skateboard chin. There’s a blue baseball cap perched on his head, a blue patterned cravat wound around his neck and an enthusiastic greeting on his lips.
On screen Bruce – so much the perfectionist that he hand-washes his own shirts – comes across as relentlessly chipper and upbeat. At home he’s marginally less exuberant. “I am much quieter when I am not performing,” he insists. “I like to relax and think about things. I wouldn’t want to live with the screen me. He would drive me crazy going at 120mph all the time.”
But it’s that finely tuned exuberance and skilfully projected pretend hysteria that has brought about a remarkable transformation in his reputation. Suddenly Bruce Forsyth is cool. It’s true that he has already been a fixture of prime-time television for 47 years, attracting as many as 20 million viewers for The Generation Game. But – family favourite though he may have been – he was as well known for his cheesiness as his catch phrases: “I’m in charge”, when he used to host Sunday Night at the London Palladium; “Nice to see you, to see you nice”, when he ran the The Generation Game.
Now, since the success of Strictly Come Dancing, Brucie is hip. Like Bob Monkhouse, Bruce has metamorphosed from being the epitome of the over-grinning, fiendishly glad-handing old-style variety host into someone who’s admired for his professionalism, ironic self-awareness and sheer excellence. Like Burt Bacharach, he’s revered for his mastery of his métier. Like Des O’Connor, he’s recognised as someone who transcends his material and turns the seemingly corny into something that is clever yet comforting.
It’s drawn the 77-year-old grandfather of six a whole army of new admirers: Jonathan Ross, for instance, paid homage to Bruce on his show, and Bruce gave Ross a lesson in how to dominate the screen.
“I love being thought of as cool,” Bruce says, those laughter lines stretching like a cobweb across his face. “Even the young comedians I meet at BBC parties like Matt Lucas and David Walliams from Little Britain have said they are fans. Of course I don’t appeal to everybody, but in each generation there’s a good number who will put up with me.” They will: last year, Strictly Come Dancing attracted 11.2 million viewers. The final of the new series, which started in October, takes place on December 17, and the BBC is quietly confident that an even larger audience will tune in.
Bruce is talking in a wood-panelled den at his home; around him are silver-framed photographs of friends and family members. He has five daughters from his first two marriages – Debbie, Julie and Laura from his marriage, at 21, to Penny Calvert, a former dancer; and Charlotte and Louisa by his second wife, Anthea Redfern, a hostess on The Generation Game whom he married in 1973. Over the years, he’s been “linked” with many ravishing women. Now, though, he’s a devoted family man, married for 25 years to 46-year-old Wilnelia, a former Miss World and Miss Puerto Rico. The couple have an 18-year-old son – J-J, as Jonathan Joseph is known – who’s upstairs in bed, flattened by the flu Bruce is doing his best to ignore.
“The last 25 years of my life have been the best,” Bruce says, smiling fondly. “Wilnelia is not only a beautiful woman, she is also the nicest person. It’s always difficult when a wife comes into a new relationship and has to deal with the previous children but she has kept our family together. We give each other space and I’m pleased to say she is also very busy in her own right – she’s currently doing her own line in swimwear. There’s nothing worse than a woman who has nothing to do except ask what time you’re coming home.”
They live in Virginia Water, in a mansion reached by an impressively long tree-lined drive. Happily for Bruce, who plays there as often as three times a week, Wentworth golf course almost wraps itself around the house. As ever, alas, there’s a serpent even in this paradise: the house was broken into three years ago while Bruce was away in Scotland. Wilnelia, J-J and their housekeeper were terrorised by the intruders, and there is now an eight-foot fence surrounding the property, a state-of-the-art security system and a police-trained guard dog. “It took a while to get over and now we try not to talk about it,” says Bruce.
Still, such magnificence (and the three months a year the couple spend in Puerto Rico) are a fair reward for the lifelong dedication Bruce has brought to his craft. Lifelong is no cliché: Bruce was only seven when he decided he wanted to go into show business. His mother created dance outfits out of satin and sequins for him, and his father, a car mechanic, made him a tap mat to keep the noise down for the neighbours.
Billed as Boy Bruce the Mighty Atom, he began working his audiences in 1942, when he was 14. He got a job at the Windmill Theatre in central London as a song-and-dance juvenile, and kept grafting away. His breakthrough came in 1958 when he was given the chance to host Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Since then he has, indeed, been “in charge”.
There have, of course, been low points: Bruce’s Big Night Out was a dud and Slinger’s Day was a singularly cringe-making sit-com. And when The Price is Right was dropped from television five years ago, it might have seemed reasonable to think that Bruce Forsyth had had his (very honourable) day. But Bruce is made of sterner stuff; in true show-business style, he picked himself up, dusted himself off and started all over again. He’s also shrewdly aware of what makes him appealing: “I make people feel safe,” he says. “People trust me, and if I’m associated with a show, they’ll give it a try.
“I also try to treat an audience as one person and give out a lot of warmth, hoping to get that warmth back. I believe in family entertainment, and Strictly Come Dancing is a pure family show, which is something that has been missing from TV for many years. And though I might be cheekier than I used to be, I certainly wouldn’t swear.”
He’s old-fashioned about other things, too. He certainly won’t, for instance, tell tales out of school about a fellow-performer. The first series of Strictly Come Dancing was enlivened by rumours that one of Bruce’s co-presenters, Natasha Kaplinsky, of Breakfast TV, was tangoing a trifle too closely to Brendan Cole, one of the show’s professional dancers. Ask one question on the topic, though, and Bruce’s wrath comes down like a thunderbolt from heaven: “I’m not making a single comment,” he barks. “And frankly, Angela, I am very surprised that you asked me.”
He’s so vehement that his voice turns hoarse. Briefly, he leaves the room, only to return with a small transparent pill holder that contains a single red lozenge. “Throat lozenges can get very sticky,” he explains. “I keep one in here and lick it with my tongue like this when I need it.” He laps vigorously at the tube. “It revives my throat straight away. It’s how I keep my voice fresh during Strictly Come Dancing.”
Such attention to detail is typical of the man. He’s both meticulous and highly disciplined; he regularly gets up at 5.30am “to think. My brain is at its best then and it’s a good time to come up with lines for a link in the show. And after the gags, there’s exercises to do: he fits in a 30-minute workout before breakfast every day. Just for fun, too, he frequently tap dances on the tiled floor of his kitchen. All this, of course, goes some way to explaining his stamina and, with it, his long-term success as a very physical performer. Given that he had a kidney removed when he was 21, that stamina is all the more remarkable.
“I’d had terrible back pain from the age of 13 so it had to come out. At the time I thought it would be the end of everything, but my right kidney took over and it hasn’t affected my life at all.”
That much is obvious. Bruce has sung, danced, quipped and grinned for more than 55 years since that operation. He’s been praised as the ultimate professional; he’s been derided as the flag-bearer for all that’s most oleaginous and banal about Saturday evening entertainment. But the energy and wit he’s brought to Strictly Come Dancing have revealed him for what he is: a master of his trade – and a knowing one at that.
Coolness has not been thrust upon him; he’s earned the accolades. It’s no wonder that he has no plans to take life easier and hopes this series won’t be his last. “I have no intention of retiring,” he insists. “Certainly not when I have a show that is working.” So it could be years before he cracks his final on-screen joke. Work, and play, keep him fresh, though “having a young son and a young wife helps, of course.” He pauses and grins wolfishly. “Overall my wife keeps up with me very well. I look round, and there she is right behind me.”
Pretty good, for a 77- year-old. But that demands one further question: does he take Viagra? “I’ve never needed it, and I still don’t,” he says. “Honestly. I’m lucky in that respect. But I do eat a lot of avocados and asparagus, which I’m told are natural aphrodisiacs.” He chuckles, and smiles roguishly. “That” he says, “could well be my secret.” Cool, or what?
This article was published in the December 2005 issue of Saga Magazine.
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